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Aussie parties trade blows over fast broadband

Opposition gags on high-fibre diet

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Australia's outgoing Labor government has a Very Big Idea: to get ultra-fast broadband (up to 100MBps), mostly delivered by fibre, into nearly every home. They think the National Broadband Network (NBN) will cost $43bn, about $5bn a year over eight years.

Australia's conservative Federal Opposition, the Coalition, say this is overkill. Actually we are being polite. They say it would create a "$43 billion taxpayer funded white elephant. It would do nothing to deliver lower prices – it just substitutes one monopoly for another".

So what would the Coalition put in its place? Until today, no-one knew - as is the prerogative of Opposition parties everywhere it has been content to snipe from the sidelines.

But with a general election in full swing and with the Opposition in with a chance of forming the next Government, it has today come up with some costed ideas of its own.

Off the wires

If it wins, the Coalition will spend $6.3bn over seven years - and will concentrate in the first instance on improving provision in poorly served places - outer suburbs, rural and remote places, where coincidentally, their political support is strongest.

The Coalition plan envisages spending $2.75bn, supplemented by at least $750m in private funds, on building a backhaul fibre network. This will be open access, so telecoms providers can hook into the network with their own traffic. Critics say this would simply mean that Telstra, the incumbent telco, will re-enforce its grip on the country.

The plan contains no provision for fibre to the home (FTTH) and is big on wireless. It would see up to $2bn in grant funding for fixed wireless networks in poorly served areas - and $700m to support satellite broadband for the "last three per cent". But what wireless? The Coalition doesn't care - it will supply the money and industry can best work out how to deliver.

Oh and it would scrap the NBN Co, charged with the broadband build-out and sell off its assets and replace it with a new National Broadband Commission.

Steven Conroy, communications minister in the Labor Government, says the Opposition plan will consign Australia back to the digital dark ages, destroy 25,000 construction jobs with the closure of the NBN and waste $6bn on second-class services.

"It will deny 1,000 towns across Australia access to fibre technology - the gold standard broadband network," he said.

"It guarantees not one single connection, [and] instead relies on a private sector plan - a plan which failed to deliver for the 12 long years of the Howard government. It includes no optical fibre to the home - none at all - and it includes no regulatory reform for the telecommunications sector."

He doesn't like it, then. But is FTTH strictly necessary to keep Australia up to speed with overseas competitors?

High in fibre

Australia's government obsession with FTTH seems almost fetishistic and its decision to set up its own company to handle the build-out, may seem curious to outsiders. Also it is vulnerable to charges of wasting public money and of pork barrel politics.

But the private sector has not been exactly fast in building high-speed broadband - today Australia ranks 50th in the broadband speed table, according to Akamai (the US is 16, UK is 21, New Zealand 42). And broadband is the future, isn't it?

Whichever way the election blows, Australia can quite clearly afford the cost of the NBN, which is a very nice position to be in, in such straitened times. As for wasted taxpayers' funds, the money will at least grease the palms of Australian companies and their employees.

We shall find out soon enough if enough Aussies are willing to pay the price. ®

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